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State budget offers ‘unprecedented’ investment into fire recovery

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California lawmakers this week approved a nearly $200 billion budget that includes an “unprecedented” investment in recovery for fire-ravaged counties and future disaster response, state Sen. Mike McGuire said Friday.

“This is a historic budget for the state of California,” said McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “Never in our history have we invested as much as we have this year in fire recovery, rebuilding and response.”

It provides critical relief to the North Bay, including $29.1 million to cover the costs incurred by local governments during the debris cleanup, the largest since the 1906 earthquake. The estimated $13 million Santa Rosa and Sonoma County each would have owed will be covered, said state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.

It’s the first time Gov. Jerry Brown has backed such an agreement, McGuire said.

“Over the past six months, Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, the city of Santa Rosa and Clearlake all spoke with one voice when it came to recovery and rebuilding,” McGuire said. “And their top two priorities were backfilling property taxes and having the state cover the local share of debris removal.”

The budget, approved Thursday by the Legislature, includes $21.8 million to cover property tax losses anticipated by Northern California areas hit by fires. Sonoma County suffered the most significant loss of the four fire-impacted North Bay counties, McGuire said. But, final numbers for property tax losses may still come in, and the current allocation could increase, he said.

“The commitment by the state is that we will make the counties whole, even if we see a slightly higher (property tax) loss coming in with the final numbers,” he said.

The budget also contains a $25 million for the state’s mutual aid system, which helps fire departments organize a coordinated response during emergencies that overwhelm local responders.

The money was a quarter of the amount requested from the state by a contingent of fire chiefs in February. However, another $25 million from greenhouse gas- reduction funds is expected to be approved in coming weeks in a deal that’s “ironclad,” Dodd said.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said he’s cautiously optimistic about the allocation of the second $25 million. He underscored the need for critical “pre-positioning” — extra manpower dispatched by the state to high-risk areas during dry, hot, windy conditions that trigger red flag warnings. He said his agency will monitor conditions and add staff when needed as part of a regional effort fueled by $900,000 approved this week by Sonoma County supervisors for extra fire staffing.

“When fire impacts a community like it did in Sonoma County and Napa County, it’s a huge, huge loss,” Gossner said. “We all need to do better at a local and state level preventing and responding to these.”

Dodd and McGuire highlighted the need for more funding for the state’s mutual aid system, which fire officials have said was overwhelmed during the October fires.

“We will build on this (funding) because I really do believe this is the new normal and that we are not out of the woods,” Dodd said. “We’ll be back at the well seeking to double this.”

Also included is $983 million for fire prevention and mitigation, of which $392 million is intended for prevention efforts, like controlled burns, Dodd said. The remaining $591 million will go to fire mitigation efforts. Funds will be largely doled out through grants. “Millions” are expected to be awarded to the North Bay, McGuire said.

The Legislature also approved $5 million to Sonoma County to help rebuild the 6 Points Community Center, a key gathering place at the URJ Camp Newman northeast of Santa Rosa, said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

“The Tubbs fire destroyed virtually all structures on the property and the funds will help return this treasured resources to the communities of the North Bay, and to visitors from around the state,” he said in a statement.

The budget includes $24 million for watershed restoration projects that will be allocated in grants, for which only Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties can apply, McGuire said. Additional funds to provide relief from average daily attendance requirements for schools impacted by fires, fully staff year-round a critical air attack base in Sacramento and buy new Cal Fire helicopters are also included, McGuire said.

But, lawmakers say there’s still work to be done to deal with the longer, harsher fire seasons.

“It doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels,” Dodd said. “We’re going to have needs here locally. ... We’ll be working with local fire departments and districts to assess needs throughout the next year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214.